How to sell a country: the booming business of nation branding

Lipetsk is already on the map: right there, on page 23 of the Collins World Atlas, a region of 1.2 million people, dead south from Moscow and not far from the border with Ukraine. But it’s not really on the map: it doesn’t feature in the slim mental atlas most of us carry in our heads; no one we know takes holidays there, and it doesn’t appear in our newspapers. Even in Russia, people may fail to place it. In September, when Natasha Grand was passing through Moscow on her way back from Lipetsk, she told a Russian acquaintance where she’d been. “I don’t even know where Lipetsk is”, he replied, only partly in jest. Some Russians confuse it with Vitebsk, which is in Belarus.

This is why Natasha Grand was going to Lipetsk, though: to define its brand, to mould its image, to put it on the metaphorical map. Natasha and her husband, Alex, are the founders of a London firm called Institute for Identity (Instid for short), which works with the governments of cities, regions and nations. Instid develops strategies to brand places, and although a part of this involves burnishing tourism – coining a tagline, say, or producing a suite of logos for travel literature –the Grands are after deeper rewards. They believe they can fix upon, and excavate, a place’s very identity – or at least an identity, something that can guide a government in figuring out how to rise in the esteem of its neighbours, how to allocate its resources, how best to compose the face it presents to the world.

In the 21st century, nation branding has grown to be busy business, and its practitioners take great pains to emphasise that what they do is different from the more straightforward marketing and advertising work that came before them. A particularly skilled copywriter sold Moses on Israel by calling it “The Promised Land”; Erik the Red named a large block of ice “Greenland” in the hope of tempting more settlers there; Milton Glaser slapped “I ❤ NY” upon a trillion T-shirts; a Las Vegas ad agency cooked up “What happens here, stays here”, the allure of sin encapsulated. To the Grands, this is all mere sloganeering. They regard their line of work as a kind of psychology: counselling for countries, therapy for towns. Look inward, discover yourself, find your place in the world.

The Grands have made a speciality of what might be seen as hard cases: cities and regions across the former Soviet Union. Their client in Lipetsk, the department of tourism and culture, occupies the fifth floor of a dreary building in the region’s administrative centre, a city also called Lipetsk. The head of the department is Vadim Volkov, a man with a square face and a rectilinear torso, who confessed to the Grands that he has a complicated relationship with Lipetsk. He’s from here, from a town called Gryazi – literally, “Dirt” – and said that he loves the region but doesn’t like it. He lived in the US once, working as a restaurant chef in Minnesota, but in his two years there, he never managed to adjust to the time difference, so he came home. He’s reluctant to go to most other places; when his wife took him on an 11-day vacation to Rhodes, he left after four days. “I didn’t know what to do there!” he told me. That’s how much he wants to be in Lipetsk.

At the same time, Volkov thought, Lipetsk needs change. Earlier this year, when his tourism officials were developing a range of representative souvenirs, they found they lacked any coherent image for their region. Lipetsk needs direction, a sense of purpose, Volkov told the Grands. Really, he wished it was more like Voronezh – a bigger city in a neighbouring region, the kind of place people instantly recognise. In English, Volkov imagined a conversation that one of his compatriots might have overseas.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Lipetsk.”

“Sorry?”

“A city near Voronezh.”

“Ohhhhh, I know Voronezh!”

The Grands took notes.

Read more at The Guardian.